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10.08.2023. Sergei Beliakov

Sergei Beliakov

Nation, history, memory

Reflections on the article by Serguey Ehrlich “Memory, Identity, and Imagination. The Structure of Behavior from the Perspective of Memory Studies”

Annotation. Sergei Beliakov’s article is a response to historian Sergey Ehrlich's article "Memory, Identity, and Imagination. The Structure of Behavior from the Perspective of Memory Studies". Ehrlich believes that the world of nation-states is unable to respond adequately to the challenges of modernity, and therefore it is necessary to overcome the limitations of national identities and unite them all in a united humanity. This requires deconstructing the structures of collective memory that underlie identity. Sergei Beliakov believes that the plan to deconstruct memory means actual ethnocide and the destruction of ethno-national identities. This is both unacceptable and impossible. A hypothetical attempt would lead to the simplification and impoverishment of world culture, which consists of a multitude of national cultures. It is impossible to preserve them in their entirety when merging them into a single world culture. The realization of such a plan is also impossible because, as Beliakov shows: ethic group, ethnic nation and capitalism, which Ehrlich, following B. Anderson, E. Gellner, and E. Hobsbawm, considers to be recent, artificially constructed projects, are in fact quite ancient, historically formed phenomena. It is either difficult or impossible to deconstruct them through the deconstruction of historical memory. Beliakov points out that an attempt to create a unified identity has already been made in the Soviet Union (an attempt to create a unified Soviet nation). However, this attempt completely failed, and therefore the project proposed by Serguey Ehrlich is utopian.

Keywords. Nation, ethnic nation, ethnos, history, historical memory, globalization, nationalism.

About the author: Beliakov Sergei S., candidate of History, Associate Professor at the Ural Federal University named after B. N. Yeltsin; Deputy Chief Editor of the magazine «Ural» Contact information:

One of Karl Marx's most famous early works Theses on Feuerbach ended with these words: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it" (Marks 1955: 4)[1]. We find a reference to these words, somewhat modified, at the end of Serguey Ehrlich’s article. The audacity and scale of what was proposed by Serguey Ehrlich is quite comparable to the most grandiose reconstruction projects proposed by the great visionaries from Plato to the already mentioned Karl Marx. Ehrlich believes that the modern world of nation-states does not meet the current, and much less the future needs of humanity. Nation-states cannot prevent any of the global threats that face humanity. These are the threat of nuclear war, the threat of ecological catastrophe and the threat of growing inequality, which is associated with the development of new technologies and the inevitable loss of jobs for many of those who until recently were engaged in manual or intellectual, but routine labour. The solution to each of these problems does indeed require a radical change in the usual norms and standards of behavior. Thus, one of the causes of the ecological catastrophe is the practice of overconsumption, when people produce and consume much more than necessary, and uncontrollably and irresponsibly spend natural resources. The modern capitalist economy and the established practices of the consumer society push the consuming people to such irresponsible behavior. Finally, there is a fourth threat, which Ehrlich does not include in this list, since, from his point of view, it refers not to the present and future time, but to the past and present. It is about international conflicts and wars between nation-states. And Ehrlich mentions "the two world wars, many armed conflicts, mass terrors, and a wide array of genocides." He believes, however, that the national-state identity is outdated and that it must be replaced by a new identity, a universal one. It is related to the "contemporary reality of the nascent global community." The world will become, or is already becoming, something like Marshall McLuhan's "global village". Ehrlich repeatedly refers to this Canadian thinker.

But public consciousness is not yet ready to accept the new reality, people cling to the old world of nation-states, there is a conflict “between the outdated nation-state identity and the contemporary reality of the nascent global community.”

People need to be literally remade, to turn French and Germans, Arabs and Jews, Russians and Ukrainians into citizens of this very global village with common values, common myths, common ideas about the world and, most importantly, common identity. And in human identity, the most important role is played by collective memory, which is based on fundamental myths. As a matter of fact, memory is "a collective myth shared by a group"," Serguey Ehrlich quotes Anne Helen Rønning’s "Some Reflections on Myth, History and Memory as Determinants of Narrative". He reinforces this idea with references to the statements of the outstanding anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (the myth "contains practical rules for the guidance of man ") and the famous religious scholar Mircea Eliade, who interpreted myth as “the paradigmatic model for all human activities”.

But the world is not dominated by the myths of the past, the myths that ensure the existence of nation-states. Therefore, it is necessary to "deconstruct the skeleton of national memory", which will deconstruct national identity itself. Instead, the memory and identity of global humanity will be constructed.

Serguey Ehrlich sees this task as feasible, because he considers nations themselves "constructed" artificially and, moreover, relatively recently. In this he entirely follows the ideas of Ernest Gellner (Gellner 2006), Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger (Hobsbawm 1991; The Invention of Tradition 1983) and Benedict Anderson (Anderson 2001). These are ideas about the artificiality of nations and that nations are essentially a by-product and optional product of the modernization and development of capitalism. Ehrlich goes even further than his predecessors, claiming that capitalism is also a nineteenth-century phenomenon, that is, a phenomenon as late as the nation and/or nation-state: "such phenomena of Modernity like nation-state and capitalism are transitory".

And since the "national idea" was introduced into people's consciousness by intellectuals through the construction of national myths, intellectuals can replace it with another, post-national one. The myth of national unity will be replaced by a myth that unites nations into a planetary unity. And such a myth is not seen by Ehrlich, who is neither an ideologue nor a manipulator, but an honest-minded researcher, as a deception. On the contrary, "universal ideals of academic historiography are fully appropriate for the global collective memory of information civilization. From the global perspective memory-identity becomes equivalent to history-truth". Pleasant and noble, but here's what hits us in the eye. Ehrlich quotes several dozen authors, among them many psychologists (up to Vygotsky and Freud), but very rarely refers to the analysis of the historical past. It can be said that the article relies on opinions, on thought constructions, on inferences, but not on historical facts. The article is rather poor in the latter. But the concepts that the author likes are accepted without criticism, as postulates. The views of Gellner, Hobsbawm, and Anderson on the essence and origin of nations are now widespread and almost conventional, but this does not make them any less vulnerable to criticism. But the accuracy or falseness of Ehrlich's own constructions depends on the accuracy or falseness of their views.

On terms

First of all, a few words must be said about terms. Ehrlich uses the term nation-state, but this concept is too narrow. It cannot be applied to many historically known forms of national identity. It is well known that the nationalist ideal of the nation-state has found little realization anywhere. Such states as Japan and modern Poland, where, respectively, 98% and more than 96% are Japanese and Poles and Japanese and Polish culture reign supreme, are exceptions to the rule. But even in these states there are ethnic minorities that have claimed or are claiming their own statehood, such as the Ainu and Ryukyus in Japan (Low 2012: 57-68). In France in the first half of the twentieth century, many Breton people did not know French, as Simone de Beauvoir noted with surprise (Bovuar 2018: 403). It is therefore possible to speak of a nation-state with great reservations. But there are hundreds of ethnicities and ethnic groups, from a small tribe in Melanesia to multi-million ethnic nations like Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians or Russians, whose existence cannot be doubted. Politicians who deny their existence can (and do) bring trouble on themselves, their country, their neighbors, and perhaps the whole world. We can call them not nation-states, but ethnic nations. The latter term is preferable because it allows us to use the concept of nationalism as well.

Benedict Anderson seriously claimed that nations emerge only with the development of "print capitalism," that is, mass commercial book printing in people's languages. Serguey Ehrlich shares his view. But what was there before? Before there were only such "imagined communities" as the dynastic state and the "religious imagined community" (Anderson 2001: 36-45) Let us check.

Ethnic nation in the Middle Ages

The famous epic poem “La Chanson de Roland” (Song of Roland) is one of the first sources where the word "French" appears. It is not a forgery like Macpherson's “Ossian Songs”. There are nine manuscripts of Song of Roland in Old French that have survived. The oldest dates back to the 12th century, but the text was probably written much earlier. It is mentioned in the chronicles of the 11th century. Song of Roland was performed before the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066. So, we have no doubts about the antiquity and authenticity of this source. Although the plot is based on the struggle between Christians and Saracen Muslims, Christians here are not just some kind of "religious community". They are indeed French, the author calls them French. Their king Charles (Charlemagne) is the king or emperor of France. In the heat of battle, Roland, Olivier, and other knights recall "sweet France." Their Saracen enemies also call them French. One of them exclaims:

I am going to Ronceval to subdue the French!

Roland is dead, if I meet him there,

Olivier, the bravest of them all, shall perish,

I'll put twelve peers to death with him,

The French country shall be desolate forever.

(Pesn' o Rolande 1964: 32)

Of course, the knights fight for their suzerain king and for the Christian faith, but also for “sweet France”. Loyalty to monarch, faith and nation are not at all mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they combine organically, as different chemical elements can combine in a molecule. The idea of the national superiority of the French is also present in the poem.

The French hit their enemies without a miss.

The Arabs suffered great casualties:

Out of a hundred thousand, two did not survive.

Turpin said: “Our people are fearless.

There's no other like it.

It is written in the Acts of the Franks,

that Charles alone had such fighters”.

(Pesn' o Rolande 1964: 46)

The real Charlemagne was the king of the Germanic-speaking Franks. Charlemagne's capital Aachen is a German city. But we are not interested in the reality of the 8th century, but its perception in the 9th-12th centuries. At that time Charlemagne was already looked at as a French king, he and Margrave Roland began to be perceived as French heroes. Perhaps it should be called a kind of "invention of traditions", but the invention, as we see, was made already in the Middle Ages, adjusting the past to the ideals of the present, and the present was the French identity, which had already appeared in the 11th-12th centuries, although it did not cover the entire population of multi-ethnic France at that time. Under the powerful and glorious King Louis IX of France (13th century), "France and the French began to be spoken of as the new Israel and the new nation of Israel, that is, the God-chosen country and nation" (Malinin 2007: 242).

May the remarkable historian and publisher Serguey Ehrlich forgive me, but in light of these words, the phrase about Ernest Renan as "one of the founding fathers of the French nationalism" seems absurd.

The modern medievalist Mikhail Dmitriev refers to the words of Pope Clement V, who occupied the papal throne not in Rome but in Avignon and was of French origin. Clement V "wrote as a matter of course that the various kingdoms are founded by God as political entities of the same various peoples according to the division into languages and tribes; and the kingdom of France, like that of the “people of Israel,” is erected for a special divinely chosen people" (Dmitriev 2019: 202).

About the real people of Israel we will speak later, but for now I will note that the idea of own people as God's chosen ones is undoubtedly nationalistic. And it was very widespread in those times when religion was still an integral part of the spiritual life of society. In the 16th century in England, John Foxe’s "Book of Martyrs" was a huge success. Since 1571, "a copy of this book should be kept for general use, together with the Bible, in the cathedral churches and residences of archbishops, bishops and abbots". The famous pirate, navigator and naval commander Francis Drake "took it with him to sea" (Makarova 2005: 23). The contemporary researcher Elena Makarova notes that "The book (with illustrations) carried the idea that the English were the chosen people, destined for great deeds and salvation and having a mission to restore the religious purity and unity of the Christian world. The book was to serve as an expression of the devotion of the English to the true religion for which they had suffered before and were prepared to suffer in the future. Foxe pursued the idea, repeated later in the writings of other authors, that England had made a Covenant with God, that it had always been devoted to the true religion in the past, and was now leading the world in the Reformation movement because it was patronized by God" (Makarova 2005: 22-23).

The idea of England as the new Israel, of the English as the chosen people was especially popular during the English Revolution. The English were perceived as "a people with the seal of God on them" (Makarova 2005: 46). John Milton exalted the English nation above all others: ”Lords and Commons of England! Think to what nation you belong and what nation you govern: a nation not lazy and dull, but agile, gifted, and possessing a sharp mind; inventive, subtle, and strong in reasoning, capable of rising to the highest stages of human ability" (Milton 1907: 45).

The idea of religious chosenness comes to Russia as well. Patriarch Nikon builds the New Jerusalem near Moscow. In Russia from the times of the Moscow kingdom, along with the imperial idea of the Third Rome, there existed the idea of national superiority, the historian of the Russian Orthodox Church Nikolai Kapterev wrote about it. According to him, the Russians already in the 16th-17th centuries formed "a view of themselves as a special, God's chosen people. It was a kind of new Israel, only among whom the right faith and true piety, lost or distorted by all other peoples, were still preserved" (Kapterev 2015). Swedish diplomat Peter Petreius visited Moscow, Novgorod and other Russian cities in 1607-1613. He left a famous work "History of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy" in six books, where he gives such a characteristic: "Russians think that they are the only Christians on earth, and boast that they alone honor, confess and adore God and His merciful Son, and leave all others in the world as non-Christians, pagans and heretics..." (Petrej de Erlezunda 1867: 435).

If we turn from the Early Modern period back to the Middle Ages, we will see that the concept of "Russian land" is found, for example, in such a famous monument of Old Russian literature as The Song of Igor's Campaign. After the works of academician A.A. Zaliznyak, the authenticity of this source can be considered quite proven (Zaliznyak 2008). Prince Igor leads “his brave troops against the Kuman land in the name of the Russian land”. Addressing his retinue, he says: "For I wish <…> to break a lance on the limit of the Kuman field; with you, sons of Rus, I wish either to lay down my head or drink helmetful of the Don." "O Russian land, you are already behind the culmen!", – exclaims the author of The Song (Slovo o polku Igoreve 1997)[2]. To think that the Russian land is a "religious imaginary community" is ridiculous, especially if we remember the abundance of pagan connotations in the text of the Song. But let's open another source – The Tale of the Destruction of the Rus’ Land, which dates back to the 13th century. The author begins by praising the greatness and splendor of the Russian land: "Oh, brightly light and beautifully adorned, Russian land!" And then comes the enumeration of the peoples who submitted to the "Christian people." But this is again not a "religious community", because along with pagans (Yatvians, Lithuanians, Cheremis, Karelians), Muslims (Volga Bulgarians), Catholics (Germans, Ugrians-Hungarians) the quite Orthodox "Emperor Manuel of Tsargrad" is mentioned. The Orthodox emperor "from fear great gifts sent <...> so that Grand Duke Vladimir would not take Tsargrad from him". It is interesting, that in a very small text twelve ethnic groups are mentioned, including Ugrians (Hungarians) who "strengthened stone walls of the cities with iron gates so that great Vladimir would not subdue them", and Germans. The latter supposedly "rejoiced that they were far away - beyond the Blue Sea" (Slovo o pogibeli Russkoj zemli 1997). A nationalist publicist of the XIX century could have written this way, but the author, unknown to us, lived six hundred years earlier. In the same thirteenth century, the Czech king Ottokar II "in his 'Manifesto to the Poles' with all eloquence" exhorted "to remain faithful to the linguistic and blood kinship of Czechs and Poles in order to “finally shut up the German insatiable mouth” (Hyubner 2001: 42).

How can one not ask, following Kurt Hübner, the rhetorical question: "After all this, one really has to ask, where did the well-known cliché about the complete foreignness of national consciousness to the Middle Ages come from?"? (Hyubner 2001: 55)

Ethnic nation in the ancient world

Anderson and Gellner distinctly contrast the age of nationalism with the eras that preceded it. They contrast it as if they were talking about the world before and after the Big Bang. Meanwhile, it is rather difficult to calculate the epoch of the emergence of ethnic nations or ethnic groups, because no matter what epoch we turn to in written sources, we find ethnic groups there. Bede the Venerable, for example, lived at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries. His main work in the original language is called Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). His gentis anglorum is either the ethnicity of the Angles (one of the German-speaking tribes that migrated to England) or the entire Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. Despite the political fragmentation (in Britain they created several kingdoms), the Anglo-Saxons, apparently, constituted an ethno-cultural integrity. At least, they differed markedly from the Celtic peoples who inhabited Ireland and Britain - the Scotts, Picts, and Britons. This is the conclusion that the book of Bede the Venerable allows us to draw. He describes how the Britons, suffering from the raids of the Picts and Scots, first seek help from the Romans, and after their withdrawal from the British Isles invite the Anglo-Saxons, who then turn their weapons against the Britons themselves. "Meanwhile, the Saxons and Picts waged war against the Britons" (Beda Dostopochtennyj 2003: 25), Bede the Venerable writes. It is quite obvious that ethnic identity plays a role in political unification as well. So we can talk about ethnic nations in this period as well.

More than eight hundred years before this book, Gaius Julius Caesar gives a brief but valuable description of the Gauls and the Germans in his The Gallic Wars. They are different ethnic groups with different customs (Zapiski Yuliya Cezarya 1948: 3-217). And even half a millennium before Caesar, the "father of history" Herodotus again mentions many different ethnic groups that inhabit different lands and differ from each other in their customs. The ancient Greeks are different from the barbarians, and the latter are extremely diverse. The Scythians are one thing, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Persians are another. All have their own customs, and Herodotus willingly tells about them (Gerodot 2017). Moreover, Gellner and Anderson's claim that as if in antiquity the state was not interested in the cultural peculiarities of the population is also incorrect. For this, it is enough to recall at least such a phenomenon as Romanization in the Roman Empire. We cannot say that Romanization was violent, generally it was peaceful. But its results were very effective. As noted by Fustel de Coulanges, "Gaul assimilated the customs, lifestyle and even tastes of the Romans. Its cities adopted the appearance of the cities of Italy and Greece. <...> The habits of private life changed as well as public orders. The character of the education of the young changed. In place of the old Druid schools, where even writing was banished, there appeared secular educational institutions where poetry, rhetoric, and mathematics were taught..." (Fyustel' de Kulanzh 2021: 159, 160).

Perhaps any nation-state of the 19th and 20th centuries could take an example from the Romans. However, there were known in antiquity examples and policies of quite a different plan, more reminiscent of the events in the Balkans or Africa in the 20th century. For this you do not even need to be an expert on the history of the ancient world, but it is enough to carefully read the Bible. For example, in the book of Numbers it is said that the children of Israel, having crossed the Jordan, should “drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you”. If this is not done, “those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell” (Numbers 33: 52, 55). Many ethnic groups are mentioned in the Bible, from the Hittites to the Philistines, from the Egyptians to the Moabites. The books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and the books of Kings may provide the most abundant food for researchers of ethno-religious nationalism, although the events described in them date back to the end of the second millennium B.C. and the books themselves were apparently written in the first half of the first millennium B.C. And it would be naive to think that the Jews were some strange exception in the ancient world. The history of the relationship between the ancient Greeks and the barbarians will also provide much of interest.

As we can see, it is by no means possible to claim that the ethnic nation is a late and transitory phenomenon. Ethnic nations are not a product of modernity at all. Neither nations, nor even nation-states are at all "imagined by ‘philologists’ in the interests of the bourgeoisie“ as Ehrlich writes following Anderson. The bourgeoisie probably has nothing to do with it at all, although a few words should be said about it as well.

Capitalism in the ancient world

The concept of "capitalism" is only slightly less debatable than the concept of "nation". There are many approaches to its definition. It is not possible to dwell on all of them now, but it is important to note that even such a recognized authority as Max Weber proceeded from the prevailing perceptions of his time (Veber 2017). And his era was a time of Eurocentrism and colonialism. This gave reason to consider the real, authentic capitalism to be the Western capitalism of his era. This allowed to compare all other historical forms with it as a kind of model, and to deny them the right to be considered forms of capitalism if they did not at least in some respects coincide with the model. Moreover, Max Weber and other sociologists and social philosophers, with all their undoubted erudition, were too immersed in the realities of their time; history was of secondary importance to them. I propose to turn to the definition of capitalism given by their contemporary, the outstanding historian of antiquity and archaeologist Mikhail Rostovtsev. A subtle source researcher, a brilliant connoisseur of ancient history, he quite willingly operated with such concepts as "bourgeoisie" and "capitalism". Rostovtsev called "capitalism" "such a form of economy, the purpose of which is not consumption but income generation" (Rostovtsev 2000: 267). That is, he contrasted the commodity economy with the subsistence economy. Rostovtsev, who was often reproached for excessive "modernization" of ancient history, stipulates that capitalism in antiquity "did not yet exist in the forms, that are typical for our time". But we have already spoken about the Eurocentricity of the views that prevailed at that time.

Already the first civilization known to us from written sources, the Sumerian civilization, could not exist without developed international trade. Sumer lacked the most important materials: stone, wood, metals. All this had to be imported from neighboring and sometimes quite distant countries. It was possible to get it all militarily, raiding neighbors. "More often, however, such goods were acquired through trade," write the authors of The Cambridge History of Capitalism (Kembridzhskaya istoriya 2021: 47).

In return, the Sumerians could supply high-quality pottery and grain, of which Sumer had a surplus. Sumerian civilization emerges in the fourth millennium BC and gradually declines at the turn of the third and second millennia. The second millennium BC in the Middle East is the heyday of the Bronze Age. The technology of bronze production again required highly developed trade, because copper was mined in some countries (Cyprus), and tin was brought from other countries (from Britain to Central Asia). Numerous economic documents and business correspondence preserved from that era allow us to judge about the high level of development of capitalist relations. There was private property, market economy (although the state could interfere in it), banking, international trade. There were known loans, bills of exchange, accrual of interest, including compound interest (Yankovskaya 2010: 48). The trade association of the Hittite city of Kanisha in the 19th and 18th centuries BC was engaged in wholesale trade. The association was poly-ethnic, it "was attended by envoys of countries from all over the world (Yankovskaya 2010: 47)," wrote orientalist-assyriologist Ninel Yankovskaya.

It wasn’t just the nobles who were consumers. During excavations in Crete, imported "precious things" were found "not only in the main palaces <...> but also in ordinary dwellings and ordinary burials." "Judging from the transactions of the Kanishites, specimens of tools and weapons, raw materials for crafts, including tons of copper, bronze, white and dyed wool, hides, and honey, were in circulation; fine fabrics and precious utensils filled the flow of 'living money' along with incense." The traders' profits were "fabulous" (Yankovskaya 2010: 47, 49, 46). More than a thousand years later, the New Babylonian kingdom also had a fully capitalist economy. The authors of The Cambridge History of Capitalism chose the so-called "long sixth century" B.C. (from the end of the 7th century to 484 BC) to analyze. More than 20,000 cuneiform tablets remain from this period. At this time, Mesopotamian agricultural production "had a clear market orientation." Most of the workers were wage laborers, paid in silver for their labor. The famous temple farms of Babylonia sold up to half of their produce on the market for silver. "The economy was more monetized than ever before - silver not only served as a means of payment in large transactions, but also worked in everyday settlements. Few among the urban population could remain completely apart from the monetary economy. Consumption patterns suggest a substantially higher level of wealth than in earlier periods of Babylonian history" (Kembridzhskaya istoriya 2021: 51).

The economy in the period of Classical Greece and Hellenistic era was also quite capitalistic, and "thanks to sea transportation and a highly developed trade network, trade with distant countries was not only in expensive goods, but also in bulk quantities of consumer goods" (Kembridzhskaya istoriya 2021: 84). Aristotle in Politics talks about how people managed to get rich. For example, the famous philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus decided on the basis of astronomical observations that in the coming year there would be a large harvest of olives. So he leased all the oil mills in Miletus and on Chios. When the big harvest of olives was gathered, it appeared that Thales was a monopolist. And he began to sublet the oil mills on his own terms, thus enriching himself. A certain man in Syracuse "bought all the iron from the iron-making workshops for the money given to him on interest, and then, when the traders from the harbors arrived, began to sell iron as a monopolist, with a small extra charge on its usual price. And yet he made a hundred from fifty talents" (Aristotel’ 1983: 397). Note that the Syracusan conducted the operation on the money "given on interest", that is, on credit. These transactions are typical for the capitalist mode of trade and finance, which in one form or another are common in our time as well. Thales lived in the 7th-6th centuries BC, Aristotle - in the 4th century BC. According to Mikhail Rostovtsev, "the commercial capitalism characteristic of Greek cities, observed there as early as the 4th century, reaches in Hellenistic states such a degree of development, which is comparable to what we see in the economic history of Europe in the 19th-20th centuries. The Hellenistic cities of the East had a large local market and conducted a significant and constantly expanding foreign trade in conditions of mutual competition" (Rostovtsev 2000: 21).

Let us recall the famous parable about talents from the Gospel of Matthew, which is usually dated to the middle of the 1st century A.D. One very rich man instructed his servants to manage his funds wisely. He gave one servant 5 talents of silver, another 2 talents, and a third 1 talent. The first servant " traded with them, and he made five talents more", the second servant also “made two talents more", and the third servant did not put the silver into circulation, but buried his talent in the ground. The discontented master praised the first two servants, and said to the third: "You wicked and slothful servant! <...> you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest." (Matthew 25: 14-27).

Usually, everyone is interested in the allegorical meaning of Christ's parable, but I am interested in the literal one. I mean how the socio-economic realities of early Roman Judea are reflected in the text of the Gospel. As we can see, the master required the servants to invest their money to get a profit. Judging from the fact that the evangelist relates this parable, financial transactions, investments, deposits, and loans were common and socially approved. This is a completely capitalistic relationship.

If this was the case in the provinces, it would be strange to suppose that it was otherwise in Italy itself. Rostovtzev found already in the Roman Republic of the 2nd to 1st centuries BC the "capitalism of almost the same type that was widespread in the East before and during the Hellenistic period." Moreover, "the most important branch of trade was not the sale of luxury goods, but the exchange of such products of everyday consumption as bread, fish, vegetable oil, wine, flax, hemp, wool, construction wood, metals..." (Rostovtsev 2000: 51). In large, rich, comfortable cities a wealthy urban class was formed: "Most of its representatives were landowners; some owned rental houses and various shops, others were engaged in usury and banking". In Rome itself, "deals were concluded at the daily exchange meetings near the temple of Castor in the Forum <...> Here it was cramped with people, in the crowd there was a lively trade in shares of the companies for the repayment of taxes, all kinds of goods, which were sold both for cash and on credit, land located in Italy and the provinces, houses and shops located in Rome and other cities, ships and trading houses, slaves and livestock. In the shops located near the Forum and in the neighboring streets, thousands of free artisans and workshop owners, thousands of slaves, clerks and laborers, who worked for rich capitalists, manufactured their goods and sold them to customers" (Rostovtsev 2000: 47).

Symbolically, over the bakery in Pompeii was inscribed: "salve lucrum" - "Long live profit", or "Hello, profit" (Kembridzhskaya istoriya 2021: 73).

As we can see, capitalist relations of the ancient world were widespread. Perhaps, it is not even worth wasting time and telling about the trade operations of Italian cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they are quite well known to historians.

At the same time, in my opinion, we cannot speak of any influence of this intensive trade and financial activity on the formation of identities. Paradoxically, culture divides people, while trade brings them closer together. Fernand Braudel wrote that as late as the 16th century the Mediterranean world was culturally and politically divided, but constituted a economic unity, which even wars between Spaniards and Turks, Christians and Muslims could not destroy. Merchant ships crossed the line that separated the Christian and Muslim parts of the Mediterranean. In 1500, Christian merchants were trading "in Syria, in Egypt, in Istanbul, and in North Africa; later, the Levantine merchants, Turks, Armenians would spread to the Adriatic basin. The economy, invading everywhere, moving money and exchanges around, led to a certain unity, whereas the rest was conducive to disunity..." (Brodel 2019: 202) Brodel writes that this was also the case in antiquity (Brodel 2019: 203). It is hard to disagree with him.

This was the case in the Bronze Age, in the Hellenistic period, and in the Roman Empire, and it will remain so today. It is not without reason that big capital usually quickly becomes international. Oligarchs acquire assets in other countries, change citizenship depending on what is more profitable now. This does not mean that capitalists are deprived of national identity. Billionaire Oleg Tinkov wrote that he felt himself a Russian and Orthodox person when he settled in the United States for a long time (Tin’kov 2010). He has now renounced his Russian citizenship for political reasons, but has clearly retained his Russian identity. Another billionaire, Mikhail Fridman, once walked across the Arabah desert, thus repeating part of the way his Jewish ancestors, according to the Bible, walked from Egypt to Canaan (Korobov 2013). At the same time, Fridman was born in what was then Soviet Ukraine, lived for many years in London, held a jazz festival in Ukrainian Lviv, and owned the largest private bank in Russia. Fridman's business partner German Khan, a native of Kiev who now lives in Russia, also walked through the desert with Fridman. People of many different nations trade on stock exchanges. Trading unites them, not divides them. Capitalists are the most influential supporters of globalization, which is so sweet to Serguey Ehrlich's heart. In any case, we see that capitalism (in the broad sense of the word) has existed for a very long time, just as the ethnic nation has. These are ancient and quite stable phenomena. They cannot be destroyed by the purposeful activity of some volunteer intellectuals, about whom Serguey Ehrlich writes. The attempt to deconstruct nations and capitalism will, at best, simply fail. At worst, it will lead to dangerous and hard-to-predict consequences.

Memory or historical memory?

Serguey Ehrlich is absolutely correct in pointing out the crucial role of memory (I would say historical memory) in the formation of identity. I would like to object to something else - the exaggeration of the role of intellectuals in the formation of identity and collective memory. I am speaking about those philologists, or more about historians, allegedly bought by capitalists and the state. At the behest of capitalists, they invent the myth of collective kinship to unite people in the interests of the same capitalists. But concepts of collective kinship and historical memory of common ancestors are known among many peoples since antiquity. It is not so important whether this kinship really existed or not. It is important that the true or false memory of it was extremely significant for people. Let us turn again to the Bible. Marriage with foreigners is so discouraged that Lot's daughters prefer to sleep with their own father and have a child by him (Gen 19: 31-38). Incest appears to be a lesser evil than marriage to men of a different ethnicity. Abraham does not want his son Isaac to marry "a native, a Canaanite woman." He sends his servant to find Isaac a bride "in my country" (Gen 24:2-4). As we know, this bride is Abraham's relative Rebekah. In turn, when the time comes for Isaac and Rebekah's son Jacob to marry, a bride of the right ethnicity is again sought. The marriage of their eldest son, Esau, who is married to two Hittite women, is strongly disliked by his parents. Rebekah says to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Gen 27:46) Isaac is of the same opinion, he warns against mixing with another ethnic group: " You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women." (Gen 28: 1). Now, thanks to research on genetic geography, we know that notions of 'ethnic purity' are of course among the myths (Genetic Heritage 2015). But this myth was one that played a role in the formation of identity. But there were other elements of historical memory that shaped the identity of the ancient Jewish people, e.g. the idea of God's covenant with Abraham and then with Moses, the observance of the Torah, etc. In this case, religion helped to preserve and retransmit historical memory, but, as I have already said, it was not exclusively religious, but ethno-religious identity.

There were other ways, not related to religion, of preserving historical memory and shaping identity. The great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was a vivid figure of Ukrainian nationalism, its symbol, a kind of national "deity". Shevchenko's poetry is deeply national. However, Shevchenko's identity could not be formed by the Ukrainian school or the press, because in the Russian Empire of Shevchenko's time there was neither yet. Until he was twenty-three years old, he did not socialize even with the then few Ukrainian intellectuals (Zhur 1996: 29-38). And a person's identity is apparently formed by the age of fourteen or fifteen (Beliakov 2022: 352-356). So how did Shevchenko's identity take shape? He himself did not hide it. His identity was formed by the village environment of his childhood and youth. From childhood he heard native Ukrainian speech, listened and sang folk songs and thoughts about the recent and more distant past. Shevchenko himself frankly and sincerely told in the poem "Haidamaky", how together with others he listened to the stories of his grandfather. And he told about the events of his childhood: about Koliiivshchyna (Ukrainian uprising in 1768 against the Poles, accompanied by Jewish pogroms), about how atamans Zaliznyak and Honta "punished" the Poles. And the poet thanks his grandfather, who preserved in his hundred-year-old head the glory of kozak haidamaks (Shevchenko 2003: 187).

An important role in the identity of Shevchenko's contemporary, prominent Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, was played by the memory of the War of 1812, the Russian victory over Napoleon and the fire of Moscow. This memory was not created by state propaganda, which had not yet had time to arise. His family and friends were contemporaries and participants in these events. Here is how Herzen wrote himself about his national education and formation of memory: "I still, as through a dream, remember the traces of the fire, which remained until the early twenties, large charred houses without frames, without roofs, collapsed walls, fenced wastelands, the remains of stoves and pipes on them. The stories about the fire of Moscow, the Battle of Borodino, Berezina, the capture of Paris were my lullaby, my childhood fairy tales, my Iliad and Odyssey. My mother and our servants, my father and Vera Artamonovna, returned ceaselessly to the formidable time that had struck them so recently, so near, and so abruptly. Then the returning generals and officers began to visit Moscow. My father's old comrades in arms in the Izmailovsky regiment, now participants, covered with the glory of the bloody struggle which had just ended, often came to see us. They rested from their labors and deeds by telling about them. It was indeed the most brilliant time of the St. Petersburg period; the consciousness of strength gave new life, business and cares seemed to be put off till tomorrow, weekdays, now one wanted to feast on the joys of victory. Here I heard even more about the war than from Vera Artamonovna. I loved Count Miloradovich's stories, he spoke with extreme vividness, with sharp facial expressions, with loud laughter, and more than once I fell asleep to them on the sofa behind his back" (Herzen 1956: 22).

Herzen and Shevchenko learned about the events, contemporaries and/or participants of which were their family members, relatives or just family friends. But here is an example of historical memory that has been held for centuries. In Russia, an important element of historical memory is the heroic defense of the town of Kozelsk in the spring of 1238. The small town fought against the huge and then invincible Mongol army of Batu Khan and his commander Subutai for seven weeks. Much longer than any other town in Russia. Nowadays one learns about it from school textbooks and teachers' stories. However, for 700 years the memory of the defense of Kozelsk was passed from generation to generation. Apparently, it was not all-Russian, but local, regional memory. But it existed. Proof of this is an episode, which is usually not included in history textbooks. However, the inhabitants of Kozelsk and its surroundings remembered it. During the siege the Mongols from Batu Khan’s army were supplied with food by the inhabitants of one of the neighboring villages. Moreover, according to the legend, a woman from this village for a cheap gift (beads or a mirror) probably showed a secret passage, by which the Mongols managed to take Kozelsk in the end. Even the name of this village Deshovki (from the Russian word "cheap") was interpreted in this way: its inhabitants or the woman sold themselves cheaply to the enemies. The memory was preserved so firmly that even at the beginning of the 20th century the residents of Kozelsk did not marry girls from this village and did not allow its residents to marry girls from Kozelsk (Beliakov 2013: 665-666).

As we can see, there are ancient and quite stable mechanisms of formation and retransmission of historical memory, in addition to state propaganda and the efforts of nationally minded intellectuals. These mechanisms in many respects still need to be studied. And what will Serguey Ehrlich do with these mechanisms? An attempt to destroy them and replace ethno-national identity with a universal one would mean real ethnocide. It would mean the destruction of a real (not fictitious or "imagined") identity. It would be not the murder of a person, but the cultural "murder" of entire nations.

The Russian historian Lev Gumilev drew attention back in the 1970s to the fact that humanity - the anthroposphere - is actually disintegrating into a mosaic ethnosphere (Gumilev 1993: 104). Gumilev, unfortunately, is little known in the West, and his reputation in Russia is ambiguous, but his thought is undoubtedly correct. And the elimination of the entire ethnosphere seems to be a task as dangerous as it is unrealizable.

Toward the shores of Utopia

According to Serguey Ehrlich, an important factor of unification should be a "global memory" of the "traumatic experience" of the past. In doing so, strangers will become one's own. People will learn to accept other people's tragedy as their own. He cites the memory of the Holocaust as an example. I am not sure that people around the world will accept as their own the tragedy of the Jewish people during World War II. How is the Holocaust viewed in the Middle East now? And what do people in China, Indonesia, Vietnam know about it? In early 2012, on the Russian entertainment channel MuzTV, during the show "Insanely Beautiful," two Moscow students said that "the Holocaust is wallpaper glue." Of course, the girls were enlightened, taken on a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Now they know what the Holocaust is. But it is not certain that it will be possible to educate the entire world population in the same way.

However, even if this succeeds, Serguey Ehrlich and his supporters will face an even more difficult problem. What about the memory of the Armenian genocide? The very mentioning of it will cause a quarrel with Turks and Azerbaijanis. And the refusal to mention it will cause Armenian outrage. When millions of Turks and Azerbaijanis accept the tragedy of 1915 as their own, I will agree with Serguey Ehrlich. But now, such a majestic and touching picture can exist only in the imagination. I would add: in a sufficiently developed, rich imagination.

Serguey Ehrlich, as a professional and highly qualified historian, realizes that politicians and military leaders cannot become part of the common historical memory of mankind. Winston Churchill is a hero to the British, but to the people of India and Kenya he is a colonizer and a criminal. General Alexander Suvorov is a hero to the Russians, but to the Poles he is a cruel conqueror and enemy. Therefore, Ehrlich proposes to turn to cultural, not political, figures. It is they who should play the most important role in the formation of universal memory. It is not a coincidence that the chapter devoted to this idea is called "Shakespeare is ours!" Yes, the example of Shakespeare is apt. He is one of those authors who proved to be close and understandable not only to the English and most Europeans in general, but also to the Russians and Japanese. His success in continental Europe was not hindered even by the glorification of the conqueror Henry V, who almost eliminated the French statehood. But not all national geniuses are as understood and sought after outside the national culture as Shakespeare. Say, the above-mentioned Shevchenko is a genius of Ukrainian culture. But his poems lose a lot in translation even into the close Russian language, they lose their power, musicality, melody, charm. The same happens with the poems of many poets. And prose writers are not always translatable. For example, in the list of Russian authors, which Ehrlich proposes to include in the universal pantheon, Andrei Platonov is absent. This is one of the great Russian writers, but his language is almost impossible to adequately translate. For the Russians the chief genius is not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but Pushkin. But there is no place for him, as I can see, as well as for Lermontov.

Here is what Serguey Ehrlich writes: "For Russians the prime rank of national memory luminaries should be Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, the creators of Russian medieval icons and Russian avant-garde paintings, Mendeleev and Bakhtin, Zvorykin and the Russian explorers of the Universe." Why are Russian icon painters and representatives of the Russian avant-garde on this list? Probably because their works are now the most demanded on the "market" of world art. But is it due to their skill and originality, or simply to fashion, which plays a colossal role not only in art and literature, but also in the humanities? It offends me that this list does not include representatives of Russian portrait painting of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Let's reсall at least the paintings from Dmitry Levitsky's series "Smolian women". The painter subtly conveyed in the portraits of these young girls mincing manners and naive coquetry, characteristic of that era, together with their naivety and directness. Each is unique. They are not geniuses of thought or luminaries of science, but an ordinary, very young girl has a personality, and each is a whole world. And all this we see in the picture of the artist, and not in the explanations of an art historian, as it often happens with the works of artists of the 20th century. Take the portrait of the rich man, philanthropist and horticulturist Prokofi Demidov by the same Levitsky, or the portrait of Empress Catherine II on a walk, a painting by Vasily Borovikovsky. Before us are living, original people. They are depicted in such detail, so expressive that the pictures show us the characters, habits, tastes of Demidov and Catherine no worse than a good historian or biographer could do. Maria Lopukhina in Borovikovsky's portrait became almost a Russian Mona Lisa. This is an incredible, mysterious picture. The artist's model died young, but, as the Russian poet Yakov Polonsky wrote: "Borovikovsky saved her beauty".

So part of her soul has not flown away from us,

And this look and this beauty of body

Will attract indifferent offspring to her,

To teach them to love, to suffer, to forgive, to be silent.

And all this should be exchanged for Kandinsky's colored strokes, for Malevich's geometric figures, which are conventionally admired?

Serguey Ehrlich has not written what will remain in his new global world, say, of French art. I will assume by analogy with Russian art that the Impressionists of the late 19th century and the School of Paris of the first half of the 20th century will remain. What about Poussin? Watteau? Boucher? Ingres? Are they to be consigned to the dumping ground of art history?

Even these examples show how impoverished the world culture will become if a universal "pantheon of memory" emerges from the inflorescence of national cultures, and everything that will not be included in it will be discarded as of little value for the united humanity. A very sad utopia.

But it is a utopia, indeed. We can speak about it quite confidently. The fact is that in the history of mankind there was an attempt to create a common identity with a common memory, a system of values and a pantheon of heroes. And Serguey Ehrlich knows this very well. He even writes about how the Soviet Union of the 1920s tried to "create an identity using the international values of the future world revolution and denying the “accursed past of Russian autocracy” and nationalist feelings." The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky expressed this idea in a lapidary but extremely precise way in his poem "To Comrade Netta, a Steamboat and a Man": "in a world without Russias, without Latvias, to live as a single human community". The ideals of Mayakovsky and Ehrlich coincide in this. Both are supporters of internationalism and opponents not only of nationalism, but also of bourgeoisie.

However, the Soviet experiment failed. And not only because Stalin decided to scrap it and replace internationalism with "patriotic education." As David Brandenberger convincingly showed in his works Stalin's Russocentrism (Brandenberger 2017) and National Bolshevism (Brandenberger 2002), Stalin's turn in national policy was tactical and pragmatic. In the late 1920s, according to the Joint State Political Directorate, a great many people in the USSR were not ready to fight for the interests of the world proletariat and for Bolshevik power. International values did not take root well, did not become native or at least simply meaningful. Therefore, Stalin had to turn to a more effective way to mobilize the population, which turned out to be "Russocentrism". But this does not mean that the project of creating an international socialist community was left in the past. It was pursued in parallel. The creation of a unified Soviet literature was part of the project of creating a Soviet nation: "...Soviet literature is not only the literature of the Russian language, it is an all-union literature. Since the literatures of our fraternal republics, differing from us only in language, live and work in the light and under the beneficial influence of the same idea that unites the entire world of workers fragmented by capitalism, it is clear that we have no right to ignore the literary creativity of the national minorities only because we are more numerous" (Stenograficheskij otchet 1934: 15), - Maxim Gorky, one of the ideologists of Stalin's regime, said on August 17, 1934 at the first congress of Soviet writers. Russian writers and translators translated Georgian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Uzbek, and Tajik (in fact, Tajik-Persian) authors into Russian for many years. These books were published in large print runs, and the translators earned a rich life by Soviet standards, as the state spared no expense in educating the united Soviet people. From 1939 a literary miscellany was published, and from 1955 a monthly magazine called Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of Peoples). It specialized precisely in the publication of translations by writers of the nations of the USSR.

The results were rather disappointing. Books by translated Ukrainian, Tajik, Uzbek, and Lithuanian authors were rarely successful among readers. Students of philology scornfully referred to the course of literature of the peoples of the USSR as "wild literature," which was, of course, the truest expression of xenophobia. And although the Soviet constitution of 1977 spoke of the Soviet people as a new historical community, the collapse of the USSR and violent inter-ethnic conflicts showed that the experiment to create a pan-Soviet (and in the long run, a world-wide) community of people had utterly failed. Is it worth going the way of Lenin, Mayakovsky and Gorky again? It is well known where this path leads.


But what about the response to the challenges of the modern world? Nuclear threat, global ecological catastrophe, growing inequality associated with the development of new technologies? Of course, it is much easier to respond to these challenges together than separately. But nothing can be done. When the plague pandemic swept the world in the 14th century, it would have been easier to cope with it if people had united. Then it would have been possible to establish a more or less effective quarantine system. Alas, in the 21st century we are almost as far from unification as in the 14th century. The recent coronavirus pandemic showed that. So it will be up to individual nations and states to fight pollution and the threat of nuclear conflict, although they will surely be able (and sometimes still are) to cooperate in the name of common interests.

Perhaps I partially agree with only one of Serguey Ehrlich's ideas. It concerns the third threat. It is not so much about inequality as about the fact that millions of people will soon lose their jobs. But they will have the opportunity to change routine labor into creative work. Actually, this is a long-standing and almost utopian idea, but nowadays its realization is becoming a reality. In Russia there is now a real boom of interest not in reading, but in literary creativity itself. Various writing courses are extremely popular. I have been working in a literary magazine for twenty years, and for many years I have been taking part in various literary seminars and festivals. According to my observations, there are now more than a hundred good prose writers in Russia and about the same number, if not more, of good poets. In addition, there are several times as many who are capable of writing at least one good short story, a good poem, or a book of memoirs. Most of them will never become famous writers, but they find joy in the very process of creation and succeed in creative work. And besides literature there are many other spheres of activity where people have an opportunity for creative self-realization. Serguey Ehrlich writes as if in a capitalist nation-state the privilege of creative activity belongs to the chosen ones. The situation will change only in a new world, not divided into nation-states. But reality, as we can see, tells a different story. So the answer to this challenge will be given not by the united humanity, but by each country separately. This is quite natural, especially since the development of countries is far from being synchronized. Even Russia and European countries live in different historical times, let alone other countries and regions. It is better to go into the future separately, but peacefully.


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[1] Quotations from Russian-language sources (with the exception of The Song of Igor's Campaign, which is quoted in Vladimir Nabokov's translation) translated by Serguey Sirotin. [2] “The Song of Igor's Campaign” is translated by Vladimir Nabokov. URL:


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